BEAUFORT, S.C. --
Seventy years ago, brave Marines stormed the beaches of a small Pacific island known as Iwo Jima. The battle raged from Feb. 19 to March 26, 1945. Despite facing horrific conditions, the Marines prevailed and secured the island.
One Marine recalls his experience with a heavy heart. William James Bryan sits comfortably in the Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island Museum, but in his mind he is taken back to the beaches of Iwo Jima.
"I want to say that the experience I had was horrifying, said Bryan. "I was pretty cocky riding the [landing vehicle] to the beach. The other fellows were pretty solemn but I was in a good mood. I told them not to worry; there wouldn’t be a lot of [enemies] on the island after all the bombing and shelling the Navy was doing. Around that time, a shell hit the side of the [vehicle] and I lost some of my confidence. When I hit the beach, I lost it all. I was scared to death and I’m not afraid to tell anybody that."
Bryan enlisted in the Marine Corps in Springfield, Ohio, in April 1944.
"The war was going on and they were drafting people," said Bryan. "I had two older brothers who had gotten deferments and they were both married and had children. I was one of those gung-ho high school kids and I figured if went in and joined the Marine Corps, I could save them from getting drafted."
After he graduated from Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, he was sent north to Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, N.C., for advanced infantry training, and it was there he learned he would soon be headed overseas.
When the time came for the Marines in his unit to volunteer for overseas duty, the instructors put the Marines in formation and had the first three ranks step forward. Those ranks had just volunteered to go overseas.
Bryan was one of the men in those ranks. Young Marines who had barely finished their training were now heading to war.
They went to Camp Pendleton, Calif., next where Bryan joined 2nd Battalion, 27th Regiment, 5th Division as a litter bearer. Litter bearers were tasked with finding casualties and carrying them to the aid station in stretchers.
A brief time after that, Bryan’s unit found themselves sailing to a virtually unknown volcanic island south of mainland Japan; a place called Iwo Jima.
After the rough journey from ship to shore, Bryan landed in the fifth wave and stayed on the beach most of the day, running from shell hole to shell hole helping the wounded find medical aid.
"I didn’t see too many dead [enemy forces] on the beach because they were all in holes and caves, but we saw an awful lot of dead and wounded Marines who we had to carry to the aid station," said Bryan, his voice low and heavy with memory.
"On the fifth day, they radioed all over the island that Mt. Suribachi had been secured and they raised the flag," Bryan said, tears welling in his eyes. "That was quite a sight to turn around and look back and see that flag. It boosted our moral quite a bit."
On the ninth day of the battle, Bryan was picking up a casualty when he was hit in the leg with a shell fragment.
"I was hit on the 27th of February," he recalled. "A piece of shrapnel had hit my leg and became lodged into my knee. A corpsman came over and gave me a shot of morphine and then put a tourniquet on it, and my buddies carried me back to the aid station. A couple days later I was transferred to a hospital ship."
Bryan spent the next several months at hospitals in Guam, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and San Diego. He spent his last months in the Corps at Great Lakes Naval Station, Ill., and was on leave at home in Springfield when they declared victory in Japan. After his leave, Bryan went back to Great Lakes, picked up his papers and ended his military service.
As Bryan looks back through the years and across the ocean, he remembers the courage and valor of his fellow Marines.
"They fought very vigorously. They did a hell of a job," said Bryan, remembering the bravery of his fellow litter bearers as they ran up the beach retrieving casualties.
Today, Bryan volunteers at the museum aboard Parris Island were he sees the new generation of Marines being made everyday.
"I think recruits are getting much better boot camp training than what I got because back then they were in a hurry to get us out of there," said Bryan. "I was only [on Parris Island] for 9 weeks and there was no ceremony or graduation, they just handed us our emblems and put us on a bus to Camp Lejeune, N.C. Today, they are getting more thorough training."
The story of Iwo Jima and the heroes who died there live on in survivors like William Bryan, and in the hearts of every Marine carrying on the legacy of the flag raised all those years ago.
Visit www.youtube.com/mcasbeaufortsc1 to see the full interview.